e-mail us
’98 document proposed ways to halt abuse of nuns by priests

NCR Staff

A further document on the sexual abuse of religious sisters by priests in the Catholic church has come to light, this one a 1998 text offering a draft policy aimed at reform. The new document is intended both to prevent sexual abuse from happening and to resolve individual cases when it occurs.

The document surfaced four weeks after a March 16 NCR report citing five documents written over a period of years by senior members of religious congregations, warning of sexual abuse of nuns by Catholic clergy in a number of countries, above all in Africa.

Written by Sr. Ellen Gielty and presented at a meeting of Vatican officials and members of men’s and women’s religious communities in November 1998, the document was first obtained and published by the Italian news agency Adista.

Gielty is superior general of the Sisters of Notre Dame.

The document offers the clearest indication to date of strategies under consideration at leadership levels to resolve the problem of sexual abuse of nuns, a problem acknowledged in a March 20 statement by papal spokesperson Joaquín Navarro-Valls.

While stating that “speculation and assumption do not prove guilt,” the document offers a precise set of guidelines for how superiors of women’s communities should act when evidence of sexual abuse surfaces.

The text is available on the NCR Web site at www.natcath.org under “documents.”

Gielty did not cooperate in making the document public and was not available for comment as NCR went to press.

NCR confirmed the legitimacy of the document with another religious who attended the November 1998 meeting of international Catholic leaders, known as the Council of 16.

The document’s suggested norms for action when abuse occurs include the following:

  • The major superior of the sister’s congregation and her general council will decide whether the sister is to be removed from the situation;
  • The community will take responsibility for outcomes and provide trauma counseling, medical care, and pre- and post-natal care if necessary; and
  • Clarity will be offered about what constitutes grounds for dismissal under canon law and the constitutions of the congregation.

In terms of preventive measures, the document proposes “solid initial formation” for religious women that would include a focus on “self-esteem, human dignity and personal authority and responsibility.” Such formation would review the “meaning of chastity/celibacy,” including:

  • Recognizing that the vow of chastity/celibacy is more than not marrying;
  • Understanding the implications of the vow of poverty for women religious as it relates to granting sexual favors [to clergy] in return for financial support or success in studies;
  • Balancing respect for cultural expectations regarding fertility with the countercultural gospel challenge of the vow of chastity/celibacy; and
  • Providing basic AIDS education.

The document suggests points to be incorporated into priestly formation, including:

  • Understanding vows made by religious, especially the meaning of chastity/celibacy;
  • Input from women religious during seminary training;
  • Scope and limitations of friendship between priests and women; and
  • Understanding of the charism of religious congregations.

When cases of abuse arise, the draft policy recommends that male religious superiors be clear about who has the authority to deal with the situation.

The document does not offer suggested remedies if a bishop is himself implicated or has proven unwilling to act.

The policy proposal specifies that “substantial proof is necessary before the process of communication begins with the sister.” Once a superior approaches a sister about a case of abuse, the document urges “use of clear communication that takes account of different cultural patterns of communication.”

It suggests “open though confidential” information to the sister’s community and province, as well as “sensitivity in dealing with the family.”

Where a decision has been made that the sister’s superior contact the priest in question, the draft suggests she be accompanied by another sister or trusted person. The priest is to be asked to inform his bishop or major superior, but in any event, the female superior is to tell the priest that she will contact the bishop or major superior.

The female superior is to “indicate to the person and/or the bishop expectations with regard to financial and other responsibilities in the case of paternity or public scandal.”

If there is a danger of public scandal, the text suggests the superior contact the bishop immediately. If not, the superior should wait “until she has a reasonable amount of information to convince her that such contact is required.”

The document suggests that men’s orders and bishops’ conferences develop policies to prevent the abuse of religious women, in consultation both with the superiors of women’s communities and with other bishops in places where sexual abuse policies have been implemented. Such policies should be made known to priests and to religious in the diocese, the document states.

Another section of the document deals with the problem of abuse in Rome, occasioned in some instances by a lack of support for sisters from the Third World who are students and who find themselves vulnerable. The document recommends that additional residences be found for student sisters (perhaps one for Asians and one for Africans), and that religious congregations be asked to collaborate.

The Council of 16, a group that meets three times a year, is composed of delegates from three bodies: the Union of Superiors General, an association of men’s religious communities based in Rome, the International Union of Superiors General, a comparable group for women, and the Congregation for Institutes of Consecrated Life and Societies of Apostolic Life, the Vatican office that oversees religious life.

The e-mail address for John L. Allen Jr. is jallen@natcath.org

National Catholic Reporter, April 13, 2001